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The Encouraging Anger of the Atheist

June 16, 2021


Here is a little something that I have always wondered.

When it comes to atheists engaging the question of God (that is, his existence, his providential love, his judgment, and his narrative for our lives from their beginnings to eternity), I have wondered why there is often so much anger? If there is no God, all faith is falsehood, and eternity is simply a covered hole in the ground, then why should the atheist care so much to prove it? Why do some insist on erecting elaborate arguments and systems of thought around some truth if there is no source of truth? Why obsess about it? 

If there is no God—no ultimate Source of the true, good, and beautiful—then we lack an eternal standard, a cosmic criterion by which to live rightly. Instead, we are left navigating our lives rudderless, except for our appetites. Without God, why shouldn’t we simply “live for today,” slake our carnal thirsts, and immerse ourselves in hedonistic pleasure? Why don’t we stop asking “the big questions” about life and accept that there simply are no “big answers.” But few—other than the most misanthropic people—are actually doing that. 

Perhaps the reason many atheists are angry is their sense that faith in God has been damaging to people. Maybe, they argue, outdated strictures are constraining people from realizing their fullest potential, and to liberate us from that oppression requires the Church and its teachings to be razed to the ground. That would be a fine argument, but it presupposes the notion of justice. If something is wrong, then there must be a right. Thus, if there is such a thing as justice but there is no God, where does our sense of justice come from? Ancient philosophy? Human political systems? Fashionable modern philosophers? Our gut? Is faith in a source of justice unreasonable, while subscribing to a godless moral code—that is, a golden rule without a Christ who offered it—is the pinnacle of reason? 

G.K. Chesterton puzzled over the unbeliever’s anger and the paradox of endless contradictory complaints about Christianity: Some say Christianity is a religion that hates women, while others claim it is a religion that worships a woman (Mary). It is a faith of unrepentant war; it is a faith of embarrassing docility. It is an imposing intellectual system; it is the stuff of fairy tales. It is simultaneously cynical and naive, rule-bound and gut-directed, meager and ostentatious, irrelevant and dangerous. Encountering these contradictions, Chesterton shook his head in wonder, saying, “The shape of Christianity grew a queerer shape every instant.” He continued, 

Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation . . . would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance. . . . Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the center. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad.

Perhaps the anger of atheists is rooted in feeling that God has been unfair (or simply inscrutable) to them. If so, they are in good company. The groaning of Jonah, the wrestling of Jacob, and the frustration of Job all confronted a God eager to engage the earnest dissenter. St. Paul, one of Christ’s greatest persecutors, would ultimately admit that our struggles with the ways and reasons of God require faith and steadfastness because “at present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). If you have questions about God and how he operates, welcome to the human condition.

But I am beginning to see something hopeful in the anger of atheists. Anger may be a visceral reaction to the workings of grace. Flannery O’Connor acerbically tells us that faith is not some big electric blanket, but it is, of course, “the cross” and that “a moment of grace excites the devil to a frenzy.” Perhaps the anger is akin to the panicky demons about to be toppled from their possessing perch by the mere proximity of the Christ. Elie Wiesel once observed that “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. . . . The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.” To be sure, the angry atheist is not indifferent. She cares enough to argue, to criticize, to detract. She may fume and fuss, curse and spit, but she is invested. And perhaps that investment is the door cracking to conversion. 

In a letter to author Cecil Dawkins, Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Discovering the Church is apt to be a slow procedure, but it can only take place if you have a free mind and no vested interest in disbelief.” The angry atheist may have a vested (and proud) interest in disbelief, but her anger tells us that the question of God matters. We may disagree with our searching brothers and sisters over many matters of faith, but we don’t disagree that it is a conversation worth having. 

And that is a mighty good beginning.